Deeper pain for black businesses during COVID-19

Sylvia’s restaurant is a Harlem institution. For nearly 60 years it's been dishing out soul food in New York City…

Its reputation - so prestigious - it's the go-to spot for national political candidates looking to connect with the Black community.

But its storied legacy came to a screeching halt when sales plummeted along with shelter in place orders, forcing the family-owned restaurant to make a heart-breaking decision, says Tren’Ness Woods-Black. She runs communications for the family-owned business started by her grandmother, the restaurant’s namesake – Sylvia.

"So for us, the hardest thing as a family was that, prior to COVID, we had one 117 employees, which is quite a lot for a small business, for a restaurant. So, the hardest thing for my family was to have to lay off our staff.”

To save the business, the family had to quickly pivot.

"So, now you have a business, where you don't have cash on hand. But now you're told that you need cash on hand, while you're not making any cash because now you need to order takeout containers, cutlery, shopping bags, implement a partner, a delivery partner, that is going to take 30 percent, you know, of your business with the delivery and completely change around your menu. All of these things take money and access to capital, which most simply do not have."

Luckily for Sylvia’s, a “buy Black” campaign that sprung up as part of the protests in wake of the killing of George Floyd, by a police officer who knelt on his neck for nearly 9 minutes, brought in a much needed infusion of cash.

But other Black-owned businesses didn’t survive long enough to benefit. 41% of Black-owned businesses nationwide were forced to shut their doors for good, compared to just 35% for all small businesses.

And the fallout is evident in Sylvia’s hometown neighborhood, where 56% percent of the population is Black… lines for food pantries are blocks long.

Many black businesses lack critical access to… funding, says Barnard Assistant Professor of Economics Belinda Archibond.

“Black businesses tend to have less access to credit than their white counterparts for a number of reasons, historical reasons, but also the fact that you know, even with the coronavirus, the CARES Act, the aid package that was given to small businesses, a lot of this is going through big banks, right? Which many black business owners do not have existing relationships with."

That wasn’t the case for all of Sylvia’s neighbors. Some did get money through the government’s Payroll Protection Program, but that’s not enough to stop the rest of Harlem’s Black business owners from worrying about the future. As Sylvia’s Woods-Black put it: When the nation bleeds, Harlem hemorrhages.

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